Carl Cruz Collection
Abolitionist Jane Ador Major (1814-1888) and her husband, the Reverend William Jackson, secretly sheltered freedom seekers along the Underground Railroad. In support of Black regiments in the Civil War, Jane founded the Eleventh Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) sewing circle circa 1860 in New Bedford. GAR sewing circles raised money, gathered supplies, and aided families.
The Underground Railroad (UGRR) had a strong foundation in New Bedford. We may never know how many freedom seekers were secretly sheltered at the Jackson home, but we do know that Jane and her husband, the Reverend William Jackson, made freedom possible for many who had escaped. The Jacksons were part of the coded communication networks between the many Southern states, Massachusetts, and Canada. They used letter writing, lanterns at doorways, newspapers, coded maps, quilts, and church connections.
Jane Major’s ancestors were of the Mattaponi Indian Tribe of coastal Virginia. Her parents, Thomas Major and Annise Jackson, moved their family of five children to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the 1830s. There, Jane met William Jackson, born a freeman of color. He was a social activist with a passionate determination to become a minister. Jane, age 22, and William, age 18, married in Philadelphia on May 25, 1837. William was called as the fifth minister (1841-1851) of the African Baptist Church of Blockley Township, Pennsylvania.
When William was called to be the pastor of New Bedford’s Salem Baptist Church, Jane remained in Philadelphia to care for their children for 10 years. They were the parents of five sons and four daughters. Between the 1840s and the mid-1850s the family grieved the deaths of six of their nine children.
Jane and the UGRR agents in Philadelphia continued to send and receive letters. The coded letters and telegrams conveyed ongoing information on the status of their ever-moving UGRR freedom seekers. Not long after the 1853 birth of their son Edgar, Jane and their two surviving daughters, Emma and Mary, moved to New Bedford to join William. There she reunited with family members, and met numerous social activists and abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass.
As the Civil War loomed, the possibility of men of color joining the Union forces became a reality. Jane’s husband joined the Union Army in 1861 as chaplain of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments. In the fight against slavery, Jane and other women relatives of the men of these Black regiments rallied. Though segregated, the aid associations, missionary organizations, church groups and the Auxiliary Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) sewing circles raised money, gathered supplies, and aided families. Jane founded the Eleventh GAR sewing circle circa 1860. Their first meeting was in the home of Ezra and Emma Johnson and included Mrs. Sarah Carter Woodlin, Mrs. Nellie Johnson Backman, Miss Daisy Cole, Mrs. Josephine Carter Smith, Mrs. Emma Handy Wright, Miss Mary Alice Jackson, Mrs. Love Curtis Chamberlain, and Mrs. Jane Ador Major Jackson.
Jane remained an activist throughout her lifetime. She collapsed on February 5, 1888 while walking through a snowstorm to church. She never regained consciousness. She is buried in New Bedford’s Oak Grove Cemetery.
The Jacksons’ great-great-granddaughter Valerie Craigwell White came to New Bedford in 2018 to honor her relatives as a part of New Bedford Historical Society and New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park’s Bicentennial Celebration of the life of Frederick Douglass.
Ivy S. MacMahon
Blake, Lee. “Jane Jackson Letters.” Received by Ivy S. MacMahon, 24 May 2020.
Cruz, Carl. “Jane Jackson Circle GAR; (Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic).” Received by Ivy S. MacMahon, 17 June 2020.
Morrison-Reed, Mark D., editor. Darkening the Doorways: Black Trailblazers and Missed Opportunities in Unitarian Universalism. Skinner House, 2011.
Rock, Ellen. “Re: LGAR Inquiry.” Received by Ivy S. MacMahon, 15 July 2020.